Tag Archives: mountain photography

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Previously, I reported that a new photo book of the Japan Hyakumeizan – One Hundred (Famous) Mountains of Japan – had been published and one of my photographs appears in the book. Very excited about the book’s release, I hurried to purchase a copy only days after it went on sale. Then the story became more interesting.

My stock agency contacted me with questions about a mountain in the Kita Alps known as Kasagatake. As with the photo in the book, they asked me to identify the summit and confirm that the mountain in the photo was Kasagatake of Hyakumeizan fame. I asked what was going on, somehow imagining that perhaps some new interest had come to my photographs or the Hyakumeizan mountains. The story was as follows:

The photo of Kasagatake in the book was provided by another stock agency and it was the wrong mountain. Kasagatake is in Gifu Prefecture but the photo in the book was of a Sanbyakumeizan (300 Famous Mountains – there’s a 101 to 200 list and a 201 to 300 list) that also goes by Kasagatake. The location on the map, the elevation, and the brief summary of the mountain were all correct for the intended mountain but the photo was of a different peak.


Kasagatake of Nagano, mistaken for Kasagatake the Hyakumeizan of Gifu

So the publisher was looking for a photo of the correct mountain and as it turned out, I had three with the agency. As I had it explained to me, the book is going to be reprinted with the correct photo. It still won’t be for some months but when the reprint comes out, I will have two photos in the book!


In Fact It Isn’t

I was very excited but had barely managed to pull it off. It was early summer of 2004 and I was sitting down to an interview with the editor of “Shiki no Shashin – Four Seasons Photos” (no longer in print) in a café near my home station. The theme was “Magic Hour”, a term I thought worthy of introducing to Japanese photographers. The editor had almost called off the whole plan because his image of magic hour didn’t match the impression he got from the photos I submitted. Thankfully, a quick explanation about Galen Rowel’s work changed his mind and the interview and subsequent two-page feature were back on schedule.

There were a few basic questions the editor asked me and my answers would comprise the bulk of the text. When the piece was published several weeks later, though, I was a bit surprised. Aside from the glaring caption error which mislabelled Tsubakurodake as Akadake, a couple of my replies to the questions did not sound quite right.

The first question asked if there was any particular experience I had had that lead me to choosing the theme of “magic hour”. My reply describes a particular morning by a lake in Nagano and after a colourful description of the predawn sky colour drama, I am reported as saying that it was that very morning that inspired me to begin pursuing the theme. Actually, this was not the case as I had been photographing “magic hour” light for over a decade prior to that morning in Nagano.

Another question mentioned that many of my magic hour photos include mountains. At the time, I answered something about enjoying photographing mountains and the light being very good at higher elevations. The quote ascribed to me in the magazine started with, “Japanese mountains are very photogenic”.

These two examples had me wondering: do Japanese people want to feel that foreigners find Japan such a wonderful place of beauty and inspiration? Perhaps there is the notion that foreigners who discover some new joy in Japan can sell a story.

This thought became reinforced during my next interview a few years later with “Gakujin” magazine, a mountaineering publication. Once again, I sat down for an interview and spent two hours or so responding to questions for a four-page feature. When a PDF was sent to me to look over and check the captions and text I was quite surprised to learn that upon coming to Japan I had opened an English school! Indeed, I had gotten a job working for one very quickly but I have never had any intention to open a school. Was this supposed to make the story more interesting or just a misunderstanding?

There were other factual amendments too. A paragraph about a pen pal I had in Gunma said that we had become very close chums. We maintained a respectably good friendship for some years but were never as close as the writer had suggested.

The fabricated text that was the most remarkable, however, was “my” account of a friend’s story after he had been working in Japan for a few months and had returned to Canada for a visit.

“In Japan there are many mountains and wide green forests, and crystal clear rivers flow. It’s a beautiful country.”

The praise heaped upon Japanese nature seems conspicuous when you consider that one Canadian is talking to another. Had he actually said such a thing to me, I might have thought along these lines: “Dude, we are, like, 27 times bigger than them and we have only a quarter the population, ergo we have way more land and tonnes more nature. Our Rocky Mountains alone cover more surface area than the whole country of Japan. What are you on about?” The truth is that he said almost nothing about Japanese nature except that he had seen a sign by a cliff-top viewpoint telling potential committers of suicide to be mindful of the people walking below the cliff before jumping.

For the most part, these little artistic liberties taken by the writers don’t bother me too much, though I tend to be a stickler for factual accuracy and it bothers me terribly to find an error in a published text that I wrote and checked myself before submitting it, never mind words put in my mouth by someone else.

On a related note, one magazine rejected my photo submissions of Canadian and Andean mountains scenes, their reason being that they already had many Japanese photographers with such photos. I was asked instead if I didn’t have any photos of Japanese scenery to submit.

I have come to presume that Japanese writers and editors want to make it seem that foreigners love Japan so much and that there is no better place to be. Hey, I don’t deny that the nature here is beautiful and the mountains photogenic. But given that I spent ten years traveling and photographing in Canada (and grew up there!), one can assume correctly that it is not Japanese nature in particular that inspired and motivated me in any way, artistically speaking.

If anything, it is the ease of accessibility to the mountains that has provided me with opportunities to climb up rugged and steep peaks whose Canadian counterparts I would never have attempted due to the technical difficulties involved. Yet since it seems to me that editors are looking for gushing praise of Japan from foreigners, I have to keep in mind that when I provide my own text with my photographs I should include a favourable nod to my host nation. After all, we want the readers to feel that foreigners are so inspired to stay here that they will gladly forsake the nature of their own countries in order to revel in the natural beauty of Japan along with the natives.

Magic Hour in Shiki-no-Shashin

Magic Hour in Shiki-no-Shashin

Gakujin tells my story, not all of it entirely accurate

Gakujin tells my story, not all of it entirely accurate

The Climber Within

When I was 12 years old, I went to a week-long summer camp event – five days and one weekend overnight. On the first day I caught sight of a beautiful blonde girl about my age or a year older. Throughout the week, any chance I got I tried to get near her to interact with her. On the last day she sat in front of me on the bus and I managed to spark up an animated conversation with her. Her stop was one stop before mine and mine was the last stop. As we neared her stop I tried to sum up the courage to ask for her phone number. But I did not. And she disembarked and summarily went out of my life.

Twenty-nine years later I doubt that getting her phone number would have made any big difference in my life now. But from that experience I learned (in retrospect years later) that when the time is now you have to act. Otherwise you watch the pretty blonde walk away and out of your life.

Grass and shadows at Yunoko

February 11, 2012. My 41st birthday. My wife has begrudgingly agreed to let me out of the house, even though I say that if it were not a national holiday I would be at work until late anyway. There’s no climbing mountains or photographing landscapes when out with the family, only shooting pictures of the kids. Last year I went out only twice and this year I’d like visit the mountains at least three times. My wife complains that I am free while she is stuck minding the children. But I don’t feel free knowing there is great pressure for me to make the most out of this single day. The question that has nagged me since I realized I would get a three-day weekend was whether this should be a photography outing with the possibility of a climb or a climbing outing with some photography. Last year’s trips to Tateshinayama and Ryogamisan produced few usable images because I was on the move most of the time. My submissions to Yama-to-Keikoku calendars have produced no published winners in the last three years and I have run out of “fresh” material to submit. And I gave my stock agency all my work from 2008 to 2011 that they had not yet received. In short, I have next to nothing in fresh material, and a hike to the summit means making fewer photographs, therefore, I should choose the spend time photographing over climbing in order to have photographs to submit. That’s the logic, anyway.

My target terrain is the area known as Oku Nikko. Beyond Chuzenjiko (Lake Chuzenji) and between the mountains of Nantaisan and Nikko Shiranesan lies the wetland of Senjogahara and the steaming hot spring-fed lake of Yunoko. This was where I have decided to spend my day, keeping the possibility of climbing Nantaisan seriously up front. I left home at 3:30 and arrived at Senjogahara well before sunrise. The weather report said temperatures would be between -9 and -5 degrees in Nikko, but I am quite a bit above the city, at over 1,300 metres. The air is pretty chill and even with a few layers of clothing on and a woollen hat covered by a hood I feel the cold. I set up my 4×5 camera on the viewing deck and use a bench as a Stairmaster to keep myself warm inside while waiting for sunrise. When the light does appear, it is to either side of my composition. It seems the sun is rising behind Nantaisan which looms behind me. I manage a few shots in 35mm and one composition in 4×5 before packing it in. Now what? Climb Nantaisan or head over to Yunoko?

Winter beauty at Yunoko

It is not yet 8 A.M. and so I drive to Yunoko. In the background, a white mountaintop draws my attention. I feel the compulsion to get up there! Imagine the photographs to be captured with snowbound trees in the foreground and the rockier parts of the mountain coated in thick white. I approach the ski run with snowshoes in hand. Is there a way to go up the mountain from the ski run? A sign says that there is, but I imagine the slow climb in the snow and the time it will take and figure that I would be better off trying to shoot more photographs. Instead I decide to walk around Yunoko and shoot the sunlight in the steam coming off the lake. But the route around the lake is closed due to heavy snow.

I return to Senjogahara and seek out a good viewpoint of the mountains east and southeast. The snowshoes come on and I follow a cross country trail to a promising spot where I then leave the trail and began pushing deep holes into the soft snow.

Senjogahara with the trunk of Nantaisan on the right

I struggle with the scenery. It is beautiful but not coming together for me in the viewfinder. It’s hard work getting the right composition in 4×5. I tramp about in the snow, scouting for a better foreground, at last returning to the trail. Somewhere there is a great scene here but I can’t find it. By now it is nearing noon. I had said that if I were to attempt Nantaisan I would start at 10:00 o’clock at the latest. It is already too late and I am still not feeling that I have found that special place where I can easily lose myself and emerge with a heap of satisfactorily exposed film. At last I stomp down a depression in the snow just of the trail and shoot Nantaisan as seen from between two white birch trees.

Wind blowing through trees at Yunoko

Not sure what they were doing but they were carrying what looked like oxygen tanks and making holes in the ice

From Lake Chuzenji, Nantaisan looks like a neat conical heap of a mountain. It doesn’t look very high because the lake is at about half the elevation of the mountain. Simply, the mountain fails to inspire me to climb it. However, from this other view at Senjogahara, I can see how the volcanic crater had burst apart with a stream of lava on one side. From this view the mountain looks exciting. I am starting to feel a strong urge to get up on Nantaisan; the long arm of one side of the broken crater looks totally accessible. By now I have also learned to distinguish which peak is the summit of Oku Shiranesan. This mountain too, of which I knew nothing prior to coming, is looking very attractive in its mantle of white. But a winter mountain is not something one climbs as a quick jaunt up and down. It’s a project that takes hours. It takes three times longer to climb a route in winter than it does in summer. That much I know is sensible calculating. I am not going to get up very far on Shiranesan, and Nantaisan was said to be a short but gruelling climb. I have to remind myself that this is a photography outing by my own choosing and that climbing will have to wait for another day.

Ice at Ryuzu Falls

I go to visit Ryuzu Falls and shoot ice formations on the rocks. It is engaging photography and I experiment with multiple exposures while turning the focusing ring. Sunlight glittering off the ice formations becomes constellations of light in my viewfinder. But it is while running up the steps to the next terrace of the falls that it occurs to me that I am getting exercise for the first time today. As my heart pumps I feel the joy of physical exercise. I don’t like exercising for the purpose of exercising but getting a workout while climbing is a pleasure. Again I look back to Nantaisan.

Ice at Chuzenjiko

The last hour of my visit is spent around Lake Chuzenji just driving and exploring and looking back at the mountains. The wind here is viciously Hibernian. Water from the lake is freezing on the dock pilings. I look at the two mountains and consider how it would be to climb one on one day and the other the next day over a weekend. If I were a single man without a family I could come back the next week or later in the month. But these two mountains will have to wait longer for me.

Shiranesan from Chuzenjiko

Once down from the spaghetti noodle road of Irohazaka, I catch glimpses of Nantaisan in my mirror. Whenever I completed a hike in the past, I would always look back at the mountain whose summit I had just visited as much as possible while walking or driving away. But there is no sense of accomplishment when I looked at Nantaisan. I had not been to the summit and I was unable to content myself by thinking that I had chosen to make this a photo outing. I wonder what views I might have captured from the summit of Nantai. This was more than just photography. I needed to feel I had at least attempted to climb a mountain. But why was that so important? Twenty years ago it was all about getting the photographs. In the last few years, however, it has become more about reaching the top. The mountain is a challenge to climb. It does not care one way or another about who climbs it. But for someone like me, a mountain – a least one of these minor league proportions – offers me a chance to challenge myself, to climb over my own internal mountains. To reach the summit means that I have beaten any voices inside me that whined about physical strain, exerted muscles, a heavy pack, or cold wind. Life is not a beach. It is a mountain. And every time I reach a summit I feel satisfaction with myself. “I did it again!”

But I didn’t do it this time and more than ever I feel I have to get back to Nantaisan and Shiranesan. And so it has me thinking – though I have always maintained that I don’t need to climb all 100 Hyakumeizan, there’s nothing wrong with trying to climb more. Climbing them gives me an opportunity to visit mountains outside of the Alps upon which I focused nearly all my photographic efforts in the last few years. I have climbed 31 of the 100 by now. Could I reach 50 by the age of 50? That would mean 2 or 3 mountains a year over the next 9 years. Totally possible. I could make a list and begin planning. I could still expect to get lots of photographs. Hmm… The big question is what would the wife think? And is it fair for me to think of solely my own personal ambitions while she stays home minding the often difficult-to-handle children? At least with photography I can say I am working. But then again, the money earned from photography has until now gone towards paying for photography. Could I possibly get some good stories to write about as a climber? I sure think so.

It seems that somehow over the recent years, I have grown beyond just hiking and photographing. Now I really need to get up mountains. I can’t look at an attractive mountain without thinking how I would get to the summit. Somehow a climber has grown within. I don’t need to play in the big leagues. Even the little league summits can help me enjoy life more.

Nantaisan from Chuzenjiko

Tateshinayama, My 31st

Family life with two small kids can keep a man pretty busy. And yet I am only home with the kids late at night and on weekends. My wife envies me for being able to go to work and spend time on doing other things than just keeping up with housework and attending to the needs of an eight-month-old who has learned to crawl around and get in trouble and her 3-year-old brother who has entered a phase of throwing tantrums whenever his carefully parked Tomika cars are budged from their precise positions.

So, it is really difficult for me to ask my wife if she minds me taking a Sunday for a tramp in the mountains.

I have good reasons for going. Any outing is work-related. Photographing Japanese mountain and nature may eventually help to bring a little extra cash home, though so far it all goes to pay off the previous outings and photo-related expenses. I might capture something that could end up in a calendar or magazine through my stock agency. I might have something to submit to Yama-to-Keikoku’s calendars that could possibly be selected (though nothing of mine has been selected in the last three years). And this time there was a chance that NHK Niigata might have been there. Alas, as I expected, NHK were out of the picture, so to speak. Two weeks ago, the guy who contacted me originally sent me a message saying that his superiors felt they had sufficient footage from the local mountains of Niigata and didn’t need to shoot a foreigner photographing the leaves in Nagano. However, I had no intention of letting go of such a connection and I thought that even if the TV folks were not going to be there, I should still go and send a few digital snaps to my contact, just to keep the flame of interest alive. He is after all, a fellow mountaineer and “camera man”.

A working father’s schedule:

19:40 – Finish work, check weather and maps, and head home

21:20 – Arrive home. Take son to the shower, wash together. Look after daughter while wife bathes, then bring daughter to wife for bath. Brush son’s teeth and own; receive daughter from bath; dry her and begin dressing her until wife comes to take over.

23:00 – Family goes to bed. Daughter is wide awake. Son has nose issues and requests tissues which he then refuses to use.

00:00 – Everyone goes to sleep.

01:40 – Wake up and put bags in car. Drive in rain to Tateshina, Nagano with Judas Priest on the CD player. (Needed something loud and familiar to keep me awake and knowing the lyrics since elementary school means I can sing along, though singing along to Judas Priest is not easy. Good thing I drive alone!)

06:00 – Arrive at parking lot (rain has stopped). Sleep in car for 40 minutes. Eat breakfast.

07:10 – Begin hike.

It’s cloudy and a fog covers everything. It’s windy and the trees are sometimes shaken roughly and showers of raindrop collections fall on the muddy trail that is a chain of puddles more than a hiking trail. But it’s not raining and I am in a silent forest inhaling the fresh cool and damp air. It’s almost like home (west coast British Columbia). The trees are sporting yellows and orangey browns but the colours are lacking vibrancy. Still, it’s the most beautiful setting I have been in since May – the only other time this year I dared insist on going out on my own for a day. The trail takes an upward turn and large lava rocks – mostly worn smooth but also scratched by hiking stalks – mix with roots to provide steps up the mountainside. I am climbing Tateshinayama, a Hyakumeizan and my 31st. Not that I am counting. Well, I am counting but only just to keep track. Today’s outing includes a Hyakumeizan but only as part of a circuit that will take me through forests, along crystal clear streams, and to some small lakes (large ponds) that have formed in the congested throats of long ago silenced volcanic craters. The main purpose is to shoot autumn scenery. And get some fresh air and exercise!

There are five other people on the trail and I pass them shortly after beginning the ascension part of the route. I am not racing up by any means and my pace seems plodding and sluggish. But at my pace I am comfortable and don’t require any rest except to take off my jacket as I am now sweating inside and more wet than I would be without it. The cloud cover persists until around 9:00 when a patch of blue opens for a minute or so. I am putting all my trust in the weather report that called for rain until morning and clear skies later in the day. So far it looks like the forecast will come true.

At last the trees give way to a jumble of volcanic boulders and the summit is very near. At around ten o’clock I stand near the summit marker – 2,530 metres in elevation – with a blasting wind that attempts to knock me over and clouds furiously washing over the summit. Visibility is down to less than 50 metres and I can just barely see a raised rim of rock curving off to the right and a lower flat area, which suggest that this is indeed a crater summit of a volcano. A view opens up briefly to the northwest and I catch a glimpse of the valley below near Shirakaba Lake. More clearings come with increasing frequency. I walk along the crater rim to a concrete cylinder standing upright with a circular metal plaque identifying the mountains visible from the summit. The clouds part and I recognize a distant spire of rock as Yarigatake. The clouds are coming from the northwest but views below and to the southeast and east are nearly constant now. I can see Asamayama and Myogisan easily and soon Ryogamisan becomes distinct as well. Particularly interesting is to note that the base of Asamayama, where Karuizawa in located, is nearly as high in elevation as Myogisan. Basically, Myogi sits near the end of a volcanic plateau though independent of it. The plateau swoops down, drops, and Myogi rises up like a rotten stump. Then beyond, the cliffs drop hundreds of metres down and the slope of the ancient volcano of Myogi slides down to the even lower valley of the Toné River below. What one can perceive from the top of a mountain!

The wind remains cold but the summit is nearly clear by the time I head down the other side around 11:00. Not far below is a hut which is near a mountain road and many people are coming up in the warmth of the sun and quiet of the leeward side of the wind. Two families have small children with them wearing only sweatshirts. I warn them of the strong cold wind at the summit. Past the lodge I make my way through more forest and along the soggy trail. I begin descending but more than I think I should. Did I miss a turnoff? I am heading north. If I am where I think I am I should be heading east. I check the guidebook just as two people come climbing up. I ask where I am and they point out my location. Oh, foolish me. I somehow thought I had passed one hut too many. I am on the right track.

What a surprise to see the next hut right beside a road with a full parking lot and a tour bus! I could have driven up here! But that wouldn’t have been as rewarding. It’s 12:40. From here I figure I should reach the Twin Ponds (Futago Ike) by 1:30.

Looking at Tateshinayama from Futagoyama

I do the easy climb up Futagoyama and then descend into a larch forest. Orange needles fall gently like golden slivers of snow until a gust blows a wild swirl of needles through the air and lodges one in my mouth. And then through the trees I see the shimmer of sunlight on water. At last I reach the two small lakes (or big ponds). The water is beautifully clear though the shore is choked with larch needles and mountain ash leaves where the wind has blown them. It’s two o’clock when I sit down for lunch and then begin hastily trying to find compositions for my 4×5. Without looking at my watch I know instinctively when it’s time to pack up in a hurry. At three o’clock I have to hit the trail again. I have two hours before sunset and the route back promises to be as long according to the book. But I know I will want to stop for photos again.

I leave the open air of the lakes for a thick green mossy forest, then come to another small lake – Turtle Shell Pond. From here I climb up and then descend through more larch trees while having a view of Tateshinayama filling the valley ahead of me. Down in the valley the trail is seriously flooded. I have to walk with my legs apart in order to step on the dry ground below the bamboo grass. In some places, the larch needles make a flat mat, completely smooth, alerting me to a hidden puddle. A couple of times I splash in the water but my boots keep out most of the water. Leaving open valley and meadows for forest again the trail becomes dry. A stream that is so clear it looks like thick glass pools below mossy boulders and roots. Through the trees the light is becoming golden. The return hike goes smoothly and at one point I catch a glimpse of the higher peaks of Yatsugatake in the evening light. I also see a fox languidly stepping over boulders by the stream in a ravine below the trail.

It is just five o’clock when I reach the road and start the short walk back up to where I parked. At a pullout I enjoy a twilight view of the peaks of Yatsugatake, the Minami Alps, and the Chuo Alps. It has been sometime since I last set my eyes on those lofty peaks.

10:00 – Arrive at summit of Tateshinayama.

11:00 – Begin trek down the east side of the mountain.

13:40 – Reach Futago Ike and do some snapping with the digital and reconnoitering. Eat lunch and do some “serious” shooting.

15:00 – Begin heading back to car.

17:00 – Reach the road. And walk back to car. Change pants and footwear. Eat last of food.

18:00 – Start engine and begin drive back.

21:30 – Arrive back home in Saitama

22:00 – Take son to shower, wash together. Look after daughter while wife bathes, then bring daughter to wife for bath. Brush son’s teeth and own; receive daughter from bath; dry her and begin dressing her until wife comes out to take over.

23:00 – Family goes to bed.

Earthquake – My story in Gakujin magazine

Earlier this year, I submitted a portfolio of Rocky Mountain photographs and a short essay to Gakujin (岳人) magazine. After some time, they called me and said they liked the photographs and the captions and essay were all fine but could I send them a short essay about the March 11th earthquake and why I was still in Japan (did I love Japanese mountains so much that I wanted to stay and continue shooting them or something like that). They also asked for a few photos of Japanese mountains and a photograph of me.

I had a story already in mind because I tried to get a newspaper in my Canadian hometown interested in my experiences on the day of the quake and the following weeks. I quickly wrote out my ideas and asked my manager at work to check over my Japanese. I sent the essay along with some photos from the Japan Alps and three snaps my wife had taken of me in the mountains.

The magazine went on sale on the twelfth of August but I received a copy two days in advance. All the photos I sent were used – 6 mountain and nature images and all three of myself. My story was printed with no amendments as far as I could tell. I got four pages. The Rocky Mountain piece was not used.

The results were both pleasing and disappointing. It’s always good to see my work in print and that the story was printed as I sent it and the photos all used is encouraging. In the story, I concentrated on my experience as a foreigner in Japan with friends and family overseas pleading for me to leave with my wife and children. I also wrote about how difficult it would have been for us to leave with a mortgage and car loan, all our possessions and my job. I mean, we could leave but what about once we came back? It’s very easy, I wrote, for people in a safe place to tell me to pack my bags and flee. But what of the consequences after the initial possibility of danger has passed? I concluded the piece mentioning the decision my wife and I had made to raise our kids in Japan and about my book about the Japan Alps and how I want to promote it here. The story itself seems to be good enough and a few people have complimented me on what I wrote.

The disappointments are that the Rockies piece was not used and I am not totally satisfied with what I wrote about the earthquake. Of course, for the Rockies I sent my best collection of photographs and put my heart into the text. If they had not intended to use the photographs then I wish they had simply said so up front. Or perhaps they will use them in a later issue? As for my earthquake story I found the word limit restricting and I feel the part about Japanese mountains was just tacked on a the end. I also just titled my piece “Earthquake” (地震), thinking that they had some idea in mind. In the end, the earthquake title was used with the subtitle “The Canadian Photographer Who Is Smitten by Japanese Alpine Beauty”. The photographs show this. The text is more about the earthquake. Somehow I felt the earthquake title doesn’t work well with the mountain photographs. But if the editor was satisfied with that (I did submit the requested material eight days prior to the deadline) then I guess that’s what he wanted for the magazine.

Overall, I can’t complain. I told my story, mentioned my book, and got my photographs published yet again.

My story in Japanese has been posted here.

The Japan Alps photo book

The book arrived three weeks ago and I finally got a post up about it. Please see the Project: Sanmyaku post to read about how the book turned out or go to blurb.com to preview and order the book.

A Blurb Experience

Since about the age of 17 I have wanted to have a book of my photographs published. By now I can say that this has happened on several occasions, though all of these occasions have been through the wonders of self-publishing and POD – Publish On Demand – services mostly.

I first published a series of three small (A5) size books through a service called Digital Publishing, a division of Gakken. The quality was not bad though I was limited to 24 pages and 32 character spaces of text per caption with no other text possible. Next came my big projects Earth Tones and Earth Cycles which went full-out with colour separation printing and hundreds of copies produced, of which roughly half remain in my closet (need to do more exhibitions and presentations). The print quality here was very good, in most cases excellent, and I was free to design the book and write as much text as I liked. No editor of course, so I do believe the text could have been stronger, but they are both bilingual books and meant to be photo books. Overall I am pleased and proud to show and sell them.

A few years ago I also used Asuka Books, a service that prints POD books of 20, 30, 40, 60, and 80 pages in three different sizes. The quality is decent considering it is not colour separation printing and the books look rather nice for show, however again there is a limit with the text and no layout options. Also each single copy is expensive.

The dream of having a book of my photographs published by a real publisher who would pay for the whole darn thing and make it look really top notch and professional has never died. I have been preparing my photographs for a project called Sanmyaku: Photographs from the Japan Alps and I have sent out a proposal to four publishers so far, all of them returning the proposal with their reason for why they won’t or can’t take on the project.

As I wrote on my other blog, I found out about Blurb.com and decided to check it out. The details of my first experience can be found here. I will continue with the results of my test copy and what happened next.

First off, the test copy came out quite nicely. Looking at the cover it looks just as though it popped off the shelf at a books store, and opening to the first few pages I think the quality of the photo reproductions looks very good and the text and premium paper look perfectly professional too. Any criticisms were restricted to slightly oversaturated photographs and slight discolouration occurring in some photos that are obvious without looking at the original. Most of the photos look very nice and only when compared to the image on screen does the book loose some of its lustre. But I have seen that even with big publishing houses. I once saw a slide presentation by a professional photographer from Canada and was very impressed with many of his images. Later when I looked at his book though, I found the colour was off in some photos and in others the colours had lost their variety of hue and tone, particularly a twilight view of a rising moon comes to mind.

Since the book quality was nice enough I went ahead and put together the whole 120-page book. Here are the problems I encountered.

As I mentioned in the other post, the flow text boxes continued to haunt me with gremlins. The final line in each box would not be justified all the way to the edge of the box. I could correct it, but later when I opened the program (BookSmart) again, other lines had indentations. Furthermore, I created a text box with the title text centered and the rest justified to the left, but when I opened the program later the title had become justified to the left and the first few lines of text centred. Not sure why that was. I corrected it but it happened again a few times.

I had mentioned my problem to the Blurb customer service staff and they had responded very quickly (four hours maybe?) as asked me to create an archive file of the book and send it to them, using a program they have for that purpose. At first, I thought I had the justification problem licked but once I added footers in order to add page numbers the justification went to heck. Suddenly each page was treated separately by the program, meaning the last line on each page was considered by the program to be the end of a paragraph and all was justified left leaving a gap at the end of the line. I tried to make an archive file but the program crashed. I asked for help again and quickly received a solution, but it wasn’t necessary as when I opened the program again I had no troubles saving the file. Then I tried to send it but found it would take over three hours for the file to be sent. When there was only 41:41 remaining the program crashed and I had to start again twice before it was finally sent, at last only requiring just under two hours to send it.

I was sure the customer service people were tired of my long messages but I was surprised and a rather peeved at the reply I received. After all the hassles I had had with the flow text containers and the great lengths which I went to in order to send them an archived file and explain in detail about my problems, I was advised simply to not use the flow text containers. Edit your text so a paragraph ends on each page, I was told. At first, I was severely irked and felt that if this was the simple solution then I could have saved myself many hours of frustration. I sent a message to the support staff firmly stating my dissatisfaction. Before a reply came, I looked over my text and reread the advice and realized that it made sense after all. The support staff admitted the program was not working for me and that in order to finish my project in time (to get the 20% discount on orders they were offering until the end of July) I should just try to rework the text. I found it was not so difficult to do this and in the end, out of five pairs of flow text containers, only two have a small, period-sized character indentation at the end, almost unnoticeable.

One word about the colour of the photographs: the Blurb site has information explaining how on your computer screen you see RGB (Red, Green, Blue) while the printing process uses CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, blacK). Because of this difference it is very difficult to know exactly how your photos will appear in the printed book. They do offer webinars for assistance and pages that explain how to get the best colour out of your photos. There is also software you can download that can show you how your photos look in CYMK. I tried to download it but it needs to work with PhotoShop, LightRoom, or some other well-established photo editing software. I inquired to the customer service again but was told I also should have a monitor calibrator and a desktop computer, and that it wouldn’t work with a laptop. So not having any of these four essential things I wasn’t able to download the software and try it out.

I received some useful advice from four photographers who had published books with Blurb about colour correcting. They all said brightness was an issue and that the photos would need to be brightened by about 15%. I wasn’t sure how I could do this and be certain I had brightened them enough, so I guessed and made corrections to brightness, histogram, and saturation using Gimp, a free download. Perhaps I could have done better if I had all the proper gear but as I said above the results turned out mostly alright.

Looking through many of the photo art books in the Blurb Bookstore it seems there are some really talented people making photo arts books with Blurb. I have enjoyed looking through many books and even making contact with a few authors and photographers. Now I just have to wait to see how my book, The Japan Alps has turned out. Though it won’t match the quality of Yama-to-Keikoku or Nihon Kamera books and their ilk, I expect it will look as good as some of the books I have seen on the shelf.